Tag Archives: customer service

long line 3

Organizational Rot

We expect organizations to get better at what they do.  But many atrophy, sometimes because of the rules-based digital systems on which they depend.

Despite clear advances in information systems, there is obvious evidence that many organizations are faltering in their abilities to provide services to their clients and customers. We expect organizations to get better at what they do.  But it seems that the older the organization, the more it is likely to atrophy, sometimes because they opt for incremental fixes for core problems. A big claim, to be sure. But the increasing longevity of Americans makes it possible for more of us to see the decline of services over time.


Consider a recent personal case. An direct flight from the northeast to Chicago should take just under two hours.  That is what I thought when I boarded a plane in Philadelphia bound for Chicago’s O’Hare.  But the United flight was delayed in leaving due to a glitch in an old Boeing 737 that was probably older than my students. We left about 40 minutes late, not that unusual.  Partly because of the delay, we were effected by afternoon thunderstorms building up over O’Hare, leaving us with too little fuel to wait them out. So we eventually diverted north to Grand Rapids Michigan to get more fuel, and to continue to work on the maintenance issue.

As luck would have it, several families on the plane were actually going to Grand Rapids via a previously arranged connection in Chicago.  So the fates delivered them to their city. Or so they thought. But despite the two-hour wait on the tarmac just short of a gate, the folks who could practically see their neighborhoods from their seats were not permitted to leave. Apparently security rules don’t allow people to change their routing. So they sat all afternoon, waiting with the rest of us to move on to an overcrowded O’Hare on the other side of Lake Michigan. Of course they then needed to find a new connection to get back to where we had just come from. This is surely not what previous generations meant about “American know-how.”

The problem here was the weather, a badly outdated plane, corporate indifference, and digital security systems constructed as a series of binaries. These days you are captive to your airline until you reach your final destination. But not that many years ago baggage could be pulled from the hold if a passenger’s plans changed.

As it happened, our return later in the week was not much better, leaving Chicago after 6:00 p.m. and not reaching our home until the next day at 2 a.m. because of more ground delays.

Crowded skies and over-scheduled airlines now make flying an endurance test for travelers that are amazingly passive and compliant. One friend described a direct flight from Albuquerque New Mexico to New Jersey that went from a scheduled four hours to nearly three full days and two unscheduled hotel stays.

Don’t fault the young; it’s all they know. But my independent-minded ancestors would have never stood for it, surely ending up on no-fly lists if they were still with us.

To be sure, travel horror stories aren’t new. But they are representative.  The point is that, like the airlines, more organizations seem to be expanding their “services” by setting up systems that can’t deliver on what was originally promised. That’s sometimes true in bank and financial services, consumer loans, appliance repair, medical insurance and governmental services: everything from basic road repairs to enrolling for Social Security. Even appliances in need of simple fixes are now tossed rather than submitted to the vagaries of  a service gauntlet.


These days most corporate dollars seem to go into marketing rather than customer service.

We sense the problem when a call to a service provider for help. The usual routine is that a robotic phone or online system takes over.  It typically allows for only a certain number of categories of response. Questions that are preset by the service provider are a cheap if deficient solution for “listening” to what another wants to say. Short of buying a yacht, no one in most organizations really wants to talk to you. These days most corporate dollars seem to go into marketing rather than customer service.

There are notable exceptions. One reason the behemoth Amazon is so popular it that it usually delivers on its what it promises. UPS has also been a part of that success. Others report good results with some car makers, insurance providers like AARP, and a large number of streaming services. These are in sharp contrast to essential human services that have been squeezed by tight state budgets and plain old bureaucratic ineptitude. For example, it’s a small kindness to not ask commuters in New York of Washington D. C. to ask about their subway commutes.  These publicly financed systems are struggling. But service problems are  often just as bad in large businesses with bloated management costs and under-paid line personnel. If you have challenges using the Post Office or a government body, look to the top, not the bottom.  Problems with mail or Amtrak or the Affordable Care Act should be laid at the doorstep of our politicians, not their workers.

A sorry solution for organizational atrophy is to find refuge in the software of amusement. It’s tempting to ‘visit’ places online rather than bother with the physical trip.  The tether of a screen seems to function as our escape route. Even so, and as challenging as it is, flying is still an amazing experience.  The thrill of seeing our world from the other side of the clouds should always matter.  And yet I traveled in a blackout on my trip to Chicago.  Passengers  near me on both sides of the plane kept their window shades down so they could play games on their phones.

Faceless Giants


There’s no surprise in the fact that no human wants to take our call at banks, government offices, or the vast number of other services that have set up robotic phone routing systems.

Cultural observers have been noting for some time that we are at the beginning of a revolution in robotics. The prediction has it that machines will do what has previously been done by people, even in many service industries.  In truth this transformation has been going on for a long time.  Ask anyone who has tried to reach a service provider such as a utility or cable company.  Robots now “answer” the phones in the nation’s largest customer service centers and many smaller businesses as well.

It is up to us to push buttons and envision menus to find approximations to the questions we need addressed. No live human really wants to greet us at our banks, government offices, or any other of the dozens of services that have set up routing systems that might save a little money.  But it’s worth pausing to notice what we’ve lost.

At best, the human/automated system “interface” is often frustrating, time consuming and—could it be otherwise?—dehumanizing.  Everyone has horror stories about the company that touts its customer service, but still manages to tie us up for the better part of a morning.  Indeed, long phone queues are becoming the norm for many firms, especially those who have already sold their services to a customer.

Medical insurance companies seem to be the worst. Anyone who must reach them to clarify a payment or seek permission for a medical procedure will run the equivalent of a sports decathlon. Professionals who must deal with them as part of their work now equip themselves with phone headsets, antacids and other work that can done while they wait out a company with no financial incentive to deal with a claim. This is a new kind of political-style filibuster found in many businesses after a point-of-sale exchange is finished.

There are a few faceless giants for whom contact with another sentient creature is virtually impossible. Trouble with Google e-mail?  You are on your own.  Hit the “?” key and the best you can get is a link to little generic “help” essays that mostly end in useless cul-de-sacs.  Google is a huge “service provider” without service.  Apple’s iTunes can be as bad.  Apple’s famous “closed system” philosophy is, well, not much help to those of us without Steve Job’s intuitions.

If we want a visual reference to these faceless giants, think of a downtown telephone exchange building in a large city, perhaps 12 stories high with no windows, no markings, and no welcoming access for pedestrians.  (There’s a large one owned by A.T.&T. in Tribeca at 33 Thomas Street)  If you have business inside, it will have to be conducted through a wire.

AT&T Long Lines building in lower                               Manhattan

A friend actually has a phone contact at super-giant Amazon.com. and can report that there are live people who can deal with a customer.  But she guards this hard-won secret with her life.

There are positive stories as well. I am happy to report that the electronics maker Onkyo will connect a customer to an engineer who will troubleshoot a problem over the phone. They actually seem pleased to be able to help, even though the buyer may have purchased a modestly priced item. The same is true at my local Ford dealer. A person always responds to a call. That’s really no surprise. The owner is a gifted salesperson.  Potential sales or repairs are not opportunities he wants to farm out to an electrical router.

An old switchboard or its electronic equivalent requires a human to connect us to another human. No integrated circuit is trying to be a person.

But it’s mostly true these days that someone who wants to experience customer service will probably be most satisfied calling 911 or eating in a restaurant.  Save the emergency call for an emergency. As for restaurants, longtime owner Jeff Benjamin notes that he tries to hire people who have a “hospitality gene.”  These are people who get genuine pleasure in making their customers happy. (Front of the House, 2015).  Alas, with notable exceptions, the gene isn’t found in the management or customer service staff at a lot of businesses.

There’s a generational difference as well.  My students don’t expect much help from other humans in service positions. In fact many prefer to raise questions about a product or order food without any direct human contact. They are “digital natives” used to the equipment and “apps” that are supposed to make life simpler and self-correcting. But here’s the requisite “I remember when.” In my student days soon after California became a state my duties included working in a dormitory with the responsibility ofrunning a modest switchboard. That meant that someone was in charge and on call to help if there was a problem.  When they were in wide use, every staffed switchboard at an organization or business was its own local 911. An old switchboard or its electronic equivalent requires a human to connect us to another human. A live body is at the center of the network. No integrated circuit is trying to be a person. We surely lost something when operators and phone receptionists more clearly knitted people to each other.